When Milos Raonic left the court Saturday, after advancing to the Rogers Cup final with a three-set victory over countryman Vasek Pospisil, he had only one wish for his opponent, who had yet to be determined at that point – that he play a long hard extended match, long into the night.
It will be Rafael Nadal, the Spanish all-court maestro, who will oppose Raonic in Sunday's final after he won an enthralling and ultracompetitive night match against the world's No. 1 player, Novak Djokovic, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (2) late Saturday.
The men's final starts at 3 p.m. EDT, which gives Raonic the advantage of a little added rest for the match against the tournament's No. 4 seed, who also happens to be the hottest player on the tour this season.
On paper, it looks like a decided mismatch. Nadal has a 47-3 match record thus far in 2013 and is a perfect 9-0 on hard courts, having won his only other tournament on the surface back in the spring at Indian Wells. Nadal has reached the final now in 10 of 11 events, missing out only at Wimbledon where he lost in the opening round. It has been an amazing comeback for a player whose chronic knee problems forced him to miss the second half of last year's tournament play and largely accounts for the fact that he was seeded only fourth here.
Moreover, Nadal has won all three previous meetings with Raonic including one on clay earlier this season in Barcelona, a loss Raonic described Saturday as a "whooping." But Raonic said not to read too much into the other two defeats because they occurred while he was still climbing up the professional tennis ladder.
"In 2010, I was like 200 in the world," said Raonic. "I held my own to a certain extent. He was a much, much better player than I was.
"I think 2011 when I played him at the same tournament, the situation was the same. It was my first tournament, other than Davis Cup, back from hip surgery. He was far beyond me in terms of level.
"I think it's a different situation this time around."
Nadal is a popular figure in Montreal, having won the tournament here once before in 2005, so he expects the crowd to be respectful, even if they are fully on Raonic's side. Raonic is bidding to become the first Canadian since Robert Bedard in 1958 to win the national title in this event, which – prior to the advent of tournament naming rights – had been known as the Canadian Open.
"The crowd, they always act the right way even if there is a Canadian there," said Nadal. "I think it is great for the tournament, is great for the crowd, and is great for the tennis in general have a local player here in the final, no?
"He's playing well. (Sunday) will be a big match for him, but for me too. So (it's) going be a very tough one. He's playing great. He had great victories this week. He will come to the final with big confidence. It will be a very big challenge for me."
Nadal is one of the best service returners in the game, which can often negate Raonic's primary offensive weapon which his serve. Raonic said his strategy in the match would be to keep the points as short as possible, knowing the longer they go, the greater the chance that he will lose them.
"It's really about giving myself the opportunity to be aggressive," said Raonic, who noted that neither Nadal nor Djokovic makes too many unforced errors. "With those guys, you've got to sort of force it out of them.
"The good thing is, when you play those guys, they play better and better with the more rhythm they get. So keeping points shorter is definitely a good thing just so they feel a little bit uncomfortable or not always as steady.
"If errors do happen, unforced errors, it's fine as long as the intention is right. If the intention is right and things sort of start clicking, I'll have my opportunities."
Raonic's service game was up-and-down against Pospisil and at times in the tie-breaker, he was serving up some of the weakest second serves of his pro career, a function he said afterward was related to the nerves he felt. The nerves could be out in full force again Sunday, given that this is his first final in an ATP Masters level event, which rate just below the Grand Slams in terms of their prize money ($547,300) and their ranking points (1000 to the winner). Even though Raonic has four tour titles under his belt, all came at lesser tournaments. This will be his biggest pay day as a pro if he wins and it would secure his place in the ATP top 10, which he moved into for the first time in his career with the win over Pospisil Saturday.
"The serve of Milos cause trouble to everybody," said Nadal. "He will play aggressive. He will serve well because he always serves well.
"The important thing against him is try to be very consistent with my serve and then if I have an opportunity on the return, try to convert it, try to make it. That's the only thing that I can do. Try to play aggressive tomorrow another time."
Nadal went on to explain: "When you serve like Milos serve, you have a big advantage. So then if you are able to improve your game from the baseline, to play the right way the important points, the advantages you have is very big.
"You know that if you do the things well, you will be on the tiebreak. Play tiebreak with that serve, I don't want to be in that situation."
Prior to knowing who he would play today, Raonic was asked if, as a young player, coming through the ranks, he idolized one or the other, Nadal or Djokovic, more. Raonic answered: "I looked up to them and I tried to learn from them, but I was always a (Pete) Sampras guy. I looked up to them and I studied them, but I was never idolizing them too much.
"You go out (Sunday), you respect everything they've done, but you sort of try to diminish that and start from 0-0 when the match starts. There's somebody on the other side of the court trying to take away from you what you want."
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